In 2004, I visited all 25 countries in Eastern Europe. You'll find the blog entries from that trip here. In 2008-2011, I returned to see what had changed since that time. With these two visits, five years apart, I accumulated enough material for my new book, The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us.
This map reflects how I define Eastern Europe. Eastern Europeans love to deny that they're in Eastern Europe. I tackle how and why I define Eastern Europe the way I do in the Introduction of The Hidden Europe.
Let's face it, when you think of a beach destination, Eastern Europe is one of the last places that will come to mind. And that is precisely why it's a great place to find beaches that most tourists overlook. If they aren't deserted, then they're packed with attractive Eastern European hotties. You can't lose. Read this guest post to learn more....
Guest Post by Aleksandar Mijailovic
Eastern Europe and the Balkans may not be economically advanced as some of the other countries on the continent but in terms of summer holidays, the beautiful sea, beaches and anything else related to sea and sun, they can certainly counteract their more developed neighbors. Below, we bring you some of the most beautiful beaches in the Eastern Europe, mainly along the Balkan coast. Enjoy.
10. Ksamil beach, Albania
Small, coastal village of Ksamil has beautiful, white sandy beach, situated in southern Albania. Across the water, there are several small islands, each of which has its own bar. Islands were not far from land, which means you can swim there and you can go with boat also. The water is clear, not too cold or deep.
I've been interviewed three times on Rick Steves's national station show, which airs on 170 radio stations. Here are links to all the shows:
1. In my first show in 2012, we talked about The Hidden Europe. You can hear it now as a podcast. My interview with him starts at minute 14. Download the MP3 now! Rick called The Hidden Europe "an invigorating narrative packed with useful tips and colorful stories. . . . It's an entertaining summary of [Eastern Europe]."
2. In February 2013, right before I left to visit all 54 African countries, Rick interviewed me. Hear it now.
3. The last time Rick interviewed me was in August 2013, when I talked about the Bumpy Balkans.
Rick Steves has been one of my heroes because he's always advocated independent travel and encouraged Americans to fly across an ocean to explore.
Therefore, it was an absolute honor to be on his show.
As Rick himself admitted, he's focused most of his life on Western Europe. I was thrilled that he was interested in revealing Europe's hidden side: Eastern Europe.
It's impossible to adequately cover a 750-page book that covers 25 countries in a 25-minute interview.
Slovenia is one of the most politically stable and safe countries in Europe. It has excellent infrastructure and the people are well-educated. It is located between the Balkans and Western Europe and has breathtaking landscapes and mountains.
One can get around in Slovenia by hiking through the well-preserved and eye-catching countryside that is covered in greenery almost from when one leaves the city. Hiking is very popular with their being a remarkable choice of trails to hike through, from the easy walks passing along foothills and valleys, to more invigorating walls in the protected trails in the mountains where one can also enjoy the breathtaking alpine peaks. Slovenia has approximately 20,000 kilometers of marked out trails that are accessible all year round provided the hiker has the right equipment and the weather conditions are good.
If one wants to enjoy the city, one can have a sightseeing tour of the capital Ljubljana and tour the great sights in Bled, where you can view the lake and castle. You can also visiting the island in Bled's lake by traveling using a boat or you might want to walk round the lake and having a picnic while enjoying the breathtaking view.
The Balkan Peninsula is a culturally diverse region. Therefore, its cuisine offers a great variety, too. The culinary traditions of the countries that make up the peninsula are as similar as they are different from each other. What contributes the most in terms of variety is the fact that the more you go east, the more you can feel the oriental flavor. In this sense, the Balkans are something like the border between the West and the East, both culturally and culinary.
What follows is a short, but informative, description of three notable types of Balkan cuisine.
What’s more liberating than travel? You get to see people, places, and things that you don’t normally see. In the past, traveling the world was restricted to only the privileged few that could afford it. Today, almost everyone can travel to just about any corner of the globe. So, what’s stopping you from taking that solo-backpacking trip across Eastern Europe? Go ahead and find some cheap flights and start making memories today!
Backpacking across Eastern Europe is a great way to learn a bit of history, view the scenery, and meet new people from a completely different culture to your own. There are numerous historical monuments and sights of interest to visit in the countries of Eastern Europe.
While most individuals prefer backpacking in Europe with a few friends, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to take such a trip alone. It will allow you the opportunity to see the sights you want to see and learn something about who you really are. Don’t let mom talk you out of it because she thinks it could be dangerous. Backpacking around Europe can be quite safe and is great fun. To keep safe you just need to know what you’re doing and to have a comprehensive plan. Keep these tips and suggestions in mind and have a great time!
Imagine if the Grand Canyon were underground—that should give you an idea of what to expect when you enter the Škocjanske Jame (Škocjan Caves). Lonely Planet listed them as one of the top 10 attractions in Eastern Europe. They’re also on the UNESCO World Heritage list and get 100,000 visitors a year. They live up to their reputation by being one of the largest underground canyons in the world with the Reka river still carving through it. At 60 meters wide and 140 meters deep, this canyon is a fraction of the Grand Canyon’s size, but the fact that it’s all underground makes it feel bigger. When you cross the canyon via the narrow Hanke Canal Bridge, you’ll see the roaring river far below. You’ll realize that you could fit a fat 45-story skyscraper in this subterranean world.
The Škocjan underworld is so enormous that a unique ecosystem has evolved here—it’s home to strange blind creatures that have never seen sunlight. The most bizarre one is the proteus. Slovenians informally call it the človeška ribica (human fish). This alien vertebrate is as long as your forearm, has a long tail for swimming, gills, four legs, pigment-free skin, a highly sensitive nose, a sensor for detecting weak electrical fields in the water, and a pair of atrophied lungs and eyes that don’t really work. They’re a weird amphibian that lives almost exclusively in water. Their life cycle is mystifying: they live almost as long as humans, they become sexually mature as teenagers, they have never been seen reproducing in the wild, their babies hatch out of eggs, and they can live up to 10 years without food. It’s one of the most hidden creatures in the Hidden Europe.
While I was traveling in Eastern Europe, my high-school friend, Sarah Spiridonov, made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I hadn't talked with Sarah since we were 18 years old, but thanks to Facebook, we reconnected. She was married to a Bulgarian and they had two boys. To help me with my book, she generously proposed that I stay a couple of weeks in her family's summer home in Turkincha, a tiny village about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from Veliko Tarnovo. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to take a closer look at a rural Bulgarian setting. The experience ended up surprising me in numerous ways.
One Ukrainian tourist website proclaims: “Ukraine is the geographical center of Europe!” And then, confusingly, the first sentence after that title is, “Ukraine is one of the mightiest countries in Eastern Europe.”
One of those proclamations is true: Ukraine is the biggest country that is wholly in Europe. Russia’s European piece is bigger than Ukraine, while Denmark is bigger than Ukraine if you count its Greenland territory. However, if you ignore these two cases, then Ukraine is the biggest. In fact, it’s almost as big as Texas.
Starting in 1999, I visited Ukraine every five years. Each time I returned, Ukraine seemed to have taken three steps forward and two steps backward.
Traces of communism
In 1999, I flew into Ukraine’s capital, which is often called Kiev, but we will use its official name: Kyiv (pronounced Kee-v). I stayed in the Mir Hotel. I learned that mir is a cool Eastern Slavic word that has two meanings: world and peace.
Although communism had officially disappeared nearly a decade before, its remnants were everywhere. For example, every floor of the hotel had a middle-aged, overweight female gatekeeper who was in charge of the floor. Besides having the thrilling task of policing the floor, this stern woman would also hold your keys, which clearly the receptionist in the lobby was incapable of doing. Similarly, at the bottom of every subway escalator, there was a guard whose stimulating job was to verify that life around the escalator was OK. Communism’s goal was to give everyone a job, so it invented millions of useless jobs. Many of these pointless jobs remain.
Another example of a communist leftover was the controlling and corrupt police force. In 2004, when I saw Kyiv’s colossal titanium Mother Motherland statue from far away, I used my camera’s zoom to take a photo. While snapping the picture, a policeman ran up and ordered me to stop. He thought I was taking a photo of a nearby military building that was in the line of sight of the distant statue. I showed him the photos so that he could believe me when I said that I wasn’t a spy.
Although I never faced corruption during any of my visits, in 2010, travel blogger Justin Klein got “shaken down” by police officers on five separate occasions during a short trip.
He offered tips on how to avoid such encounters:
Keep quiet when the police are around (so they don’t overhear you speaking English).
If they ask you for a bribe, reinforce that you’re just a poor traveler who is staying in cheap hostels and traveling on second-class trains.
Say that you’ve already had to pay other officers “fees” for minor “violations.”
Carry little cash in your wallet (or at least the wallet you show them); they’re unlikely to walk you to a bank to get more money, so you might get away with a small bribe.
Pretend you don’t understand them and hope they get bored.
Justin nearly left Ukraine early out of frustration, but he’s glad he stayed because he loved the people and the country overall.
Another communism hangover is that arbitrary rules are posted everywhere. Fortunately, it’s all in Cyrillic so you probably won’t understand them, although I learned to spot their favorite phrase, “Strictly Forbidden!” Ukrainians probably ignored half of the rules under communism, but nowadays they seem to ignore all the rules.
The strictness of our laws is compensated for by their lack of enforcement. — Whispered Soviet saying